Swedish Christmas traditions aren’t very different from those of the rest of Europe. Christmas markets pop up here and there, mulled wine becomes the chosen beverage to warm up on cold evenings, children eagerly bake gingerbread cookies.
There are, however, some very unique traditions that will enchant and, at times, bewilder you completely. And that is a very good thing because, for a moment, you’ll get to feel like a little kid again; not quite sure what’s going to happen but certain it’s going to be magical.
Stockholm, and other cities around Sweden, gets dressed for Christmas. Lights sparkle here and there, Nybroplan welcomes the familiar illuminated herd of moose, the Kinnevik Tree (the biggest Christmas tree in the world) shoots up 40 metres high on Skeppsbron. Gamla Stan is one big cosy twinkle.
At home, people light candles to add warmth and comfort to the environment. They also hang paper star lanterns (representing Stars of Bethlehem) in the windows and wreaths appear on entrance doors. Hyacinths and straw ornaments are also popular. A few days before Christmas Eve, the search for the perfect Christmas tree begins. Once it’s been set up, the tree is decorated with lights, gingerbread cookies and paper stars.
The markets usually appear some time before December. After you stumble upon your first one, there’s no looking back; now the only thing to do is join the perpetually-long queue at the glögg stand, try artisan delicacies ranging from liquorice to pickled herring, and get someone you love a handmade ceramic bowl.
Stockholm Julmarknad in Gamla Stan (Stortorget) is open from the end of November until 23rd December and it’s one of the most popular Christmas markets in the city. It can get crowded, but once you hit the mulled wine stand you’ll find that it’s “the more, the merrier!”
In the run-up to Christmas, people in Sweden like to meet and enjoy julbord, loosely translated as “Christmas table.” Restaurants will entice you with their take on julbord (Korean? Italian? Anyone for Christmas sushi, perhaps?). The traditional julbord involves classic Swedish fare: herring in many, many delicious disguises – pickled, baked, mixed with sour cream, fried and then pickled -different sorts of smoked salmon and ham, Janssons frestelse (“Jansson’s temptation” and tempting it is indeed, provided you’re not vegetarian) which is a casserole of pillowy potatoes baked in pools of cream with brined sprats. There are also cold salads such as beetroot, potato and cabbage, and of course, köttbullar (meatballs).
The list continues but you get the idea. As for the desserts: rice pudding (risgryngröt) is the most popular. It’s creamy and tastes of cinnamon. Each batch is supposed to a hide whole almond among the deliciously overcooked grains; the person who finds it is likely to get married within a year.
The main beverages served as a part of Julbord are glögg (mulled wine) and julmust, a sweet soft drink similar to root beer.
The countdown to Christmas starts with Advent. On the first Sunday that falls four weeks prior to Christmas, families light up the first advent candle. The remaining three follow each week. Electric advent lights displayed in almost every window are another way of signalling that Jul is approaching. Lighting candles is also a way to make dark winter days more bearable.
Another way to add a little bit of excitement to the period leading to Christmas is the advent calendar, loved particularly by children. You may be envisioning a cardboard calendar with 24 chocolates to snatch from the little windows, but many parents get creative, making reusable advent calendars that can be filled with a little something each day.
Sankta Lucia day is celebrated on 13th December and it’s magical. Saint Lucia is believed to have been a bearer of light and, let me tell you, she bears that light in the most gracious way. The girl who is chosen to be a Lucia wears a candle-lit crown (and these are real candles burning!) in her hair and leads a procession of white-clad girls and boys carrying even more candles in their hands. You can watch the Luciatåg (the procession) in churches all over the city. The performance involves a choir singing traditional Lucia songs. It’s a wonderful experience. Lucia celebrations wouldn’t be complete without lussekatter : saffron buns shaped like the letter S and adorned with two plump raisins. Scrumptious.
Julbord and glögg aside, December is also the month of saffron and gingerbread. Batch after batch of yeasty dough is shaped, flavoured and baked into saffransbullar (saffron buns, with or without raisins) and luciakatter (see above). You’re bound to find some saffransskorpor (hard biscuits) or even saffron eclairs. As for the gingerbread: you can either buy raw dough and bake it yourself or get beautifully hand-decorated and wrapped gingerbread cookies. Keep your eyes open for the mjuk papparkaka (soft gingerbread), enticingly juicy with a lingonberry somewhere on top.
If you’re in Stockholm, go to ArkDes (Arkitektur- och Designcentrum) on the island of Skeppsholmen to see the annual gingerbread house exhibition and competition. Once you’ve browsed the houses, you get to vote for the one you like best!
Another Christmas delicacy worth trying is vörtbröd – very dark rye bread made with wort. It’s available in bakeries all over the city throughout the month and, even if the combination sounds strange, wort bread makes a mean open-faced avocado & egg sandwich.
Kalle Anka (Donald Duck)
Donald Duck is one of the most important Swedish Christmas traditions (yes, really!). Since 1959, at 3 pm on Christmas Eve, whole families in Sweden gather in front of TV to watch old Disney cartoons. Life stops to watch “Kalle Anka och hans vänner önskar God Jul” (“Donald Duck and his friends wish you a Merry Christmas”). Some may not sit and watch with undivided attention but still wouldn’t dare to entirely switch off the TV set. Even for those who carry on prepping ham for Christmas Eve, Kalle Anka will be heard quacking in the background!
The Christmas tree is all dressed up, festivities have been planned around Kalle Anka marathon and it’s finally time to gather around the table and enjoy the abundant julbord. And then, when everyone is blissfully satiated, it’s time to see what Santa has left under that pretty tree.
Know of any other Swedish Christmas traditions? Let us know in the comments!